Friday, August 29, 2014

Reviewing Art In Comics: What I Like To See/Aspire To Provide

Let's be honest: There are a dearth of websites, blogs, podcasts, etc. doing reviews of comics.  I'm on a podcast that reviews comics weekly, and have been known, on occasion, to provide a written review of a comic both at Captain Blue Hen's website and, in the early days, this blog.  On the podcast, we keep a loose format; consistency in review aspects isn't something we spend a whole lot of time on.  For myself, I at least try to critique both the art and the written content every time.

But we're always trying to improve, right?  I think we owe it to ourselves, our fans, and comics creators in general to include at least a minimum of planning in our approach to reviews.  I'm not saying every review needs to hit every check-box on the list, but what I AM saying is that taking those planning steps and, at the least, pre-loading a mental checklist prior to reading critically can elevate an otherwise lackluster critique to something the audience can benefit from and enjoy.

I focus on art because it's not uncommon to find reviews of comics that don't even mention it.  Bizarre, right? I mean, it accomplishes a significant portion of the storytelling in any good comic, so why wouldn't you at least talk about it in any review?

Many reviewers, I think, feel intimidated by the processes and techniques on display.  They feel more comfortable talking about plot and script because these are aspects common to comics, prose novels, plays, movies, etc...a familiarity with these is to be expected in any warm body approaching a comic review, as presumably literate reviewers have likely been exposed to these basic elements some order of magnitude more often than aspects such as pencil line work.

Comic art, where sequential, still images take a major role in story delivery, is a just little more niche, isn't it?

Below, I list some aspects of sequential art I like to explore in my reviews.  It is by no means an exhaustive list, and it doesn't come from some authority on the subject.   Like all my reviews, it is crafted from opinions and personal interest in the topic, so take/leave as you see fit. My hope is that it gets any prospective critic thinking about aspects of comic art in a constructive way prior to critical reading.  Perhaps it will cue readers to aspects they haven't thought of, or suggest further areas to explore the media.  Remember, even if you don't understand all the tricks of the trade, you are ALWAYS qualified to talk about whether the artist was successful communicating with YOU. Also, I'm not perfect. Keep in mind I don't always live up to these guidelines:

1. The Artists' Name(s): At a minimum, mention the artist's name.  A good review might also include the names of those involved in layouts, clean-up, coloring, etc. Coloring, especially, is an essential function, and any time the colorist is a separate body from the listed artist, then that colorist (and their work) deserves mention in your review. A good rule of thumb is, if you touch on any contribution to the work in more than a passing manner, you should be mentioning the contributor by name.  These are the men and women bringing your favorite media to you, and they deserve mention in any critical discussion.

2.  The Medium: You want to be aware of what you're looking at.  Comics art has expanded in available technique greatly over the past several years, especially where computer image production is concerned.  Are you reviewing traditional pencil work on paper, with inks overlaid and colors applied later in the process? Or is it even colored? Maybe it's painted, where color is approached in conjunction with laying out form, as opposed to creating monotone borders around everything. Was the art produced digitally, or with hand tools, or both? Although it's getting more difficult to tell them apart in some instances, you can usually spot digitally-produced line work.  If you're not sure, take to the internet and do some research; you should be able to glean something about the artist's usual approach.
Clayton Crain is one of the more prominent digital painters in comics.  Note the lack of black line borders around forms you would see in a traditional line drawing. See that highlighting at the edge of Frank's left leg? Line artists in comics tend to shy away from letting glare/highlights extend to the edges, even if the lighting calls for it, because it disrupts the line around the form. In this case, however, it results in a more consistent lighting environment.

3. The Style: Discuss your first impressions of the artist's style: Is it cartoony? Realistic? Cinematic? Does it fit with the narrative? Are proportions exaggerated?  If so, could these exaggerations be carried into 3 dimensions? What I mean by this is, if you imagine changing the 'camera' viewpoint, would the exaggerated proportions carry the same meaning or impact, and are they consistent with a depiction of a 3D environment?  Sometimes, the consistency that would suggest a 3D world is consciously sacrificed for the sake of impact or style. Many artists in comics (Jack Kirby comes to mind) use exaggerated proportions and skewed perspective to increase impact, illustrate emotion and power, etc. in a way that would fall apart if you were to rotate the view around the focus of the image. However, it remains something for you to consider, and possibly comment on.
An artist with a cartoony style who makes frequent use of exaggerated perspective and proportion, Joe Madureira nevertheless demonstrates an expert knowledge of the human physique.

4. The Lines: For non-painted material, how does the line work grab you? Artists can bring a truckload of technique to laying out even the simplest lines on the page. Line thicknesses can change gradually or sharply across a given segment, and the line itself can denote shape, lighting, consistency of materials, reflectivity of the surface being rendered, and a laundry list of other things. Any line drawn on the human face can carry a host of information besides the outline of the form. Note how line weighting is used or discarded, and how much detail is brought forth by varying line thickness. You might find, for example, that an artist's inattention to line weighting sucks the contour and dimension out of a figure or face, or how subtle variations can produce a more effective, impactful portrait of a character.
Steve Dillon is an artist that, in my opinion, could loosen up and vary some of the line work around the mouth and other facial features.  A solid, unbroken line around the lips, for example, is something you don't see often on people who don't wear lip-liner. For me, this results in a fishy, plastic look that I don't enjoy.

5. The Anatomy:  Everyone's favorite! How well are the characters rendered? Do you feel the artist is comfortable depicting characters across the broad range of musculature and posing available to the human figure? Or is(are) the artist(s) relying on a limited range of 'pre-fab' poses? Do the characters articulate convincingly? Do the various muscle groups and shapes respond to and limit character actions convincingly, or do they move like plastic figures? Is anatomy exaggerated? Are characters overtly sexualized? Is there a variety of body shapes, faces, heights, etc. available, or is there 'same-face/ re-tread' happening?
Frank Cho, in my opinion, has mastered human anatomy and musculature. And look at the rich detail in those backgrounds!

6.  The Poses:  Note how the artist conveys action in the scene.  Can you envision the scene a split-second prior to the panel you're looking at, and a split-second beyond? Do the figures carry weight and motion in their stance? Are the poses chosen for characters believable? In the case of some of the more fantastic characters and environments, do they need to be? Do the characters interact with their environments in a believable way? Are the character stances consistent with the plane of the floor, the chairs they sit on, the steps they climb, etc? Or do the characters appear to float about in their surroundings like Sandra Bullock in a space capsule? Are the attitudes of characters conveyed in their body language?
Note the infinite variety of poses available to an artist like Amy Reeder, especially in the crowd scene..and how the poses in the crowd impart motion and impact to the fly-by. Note also the attention to panel layout and composition that imparts action in a very cinematic way.

7.  The Blocking:  Are scenes set up in a cohesive way?  Are the best camera view-points chosen? Is the action up front and big, or is it distant? Are the panels muddied by too many superfluous characters or objects? Keep in mind, there may be scenes where such confusion is essential, as the Times Square example featuring Rocket Girl, above, will attest. Note how the scope and gravity of a given piece is altered as these aspects are changed.

8.  The Backgrounds:  One of the first things to suffer where deadlines loom and artists fatigue is the amount of detail in the background.  Obscuring the background with a monotone plane of color is something you see frequently. This can also, however, be a stylistic choice that centers the readers' focus around a character or bit of action, where the minutiae of the scene becomes unimportant.  Take note of the techniques used and when and where the backgrounds are allowed to add visual detail.
While Jock's stylistic approach to characters is unparalleled, I thought this issue suffered, in general, from a lack of detail in the backgrounds. Others may, on the other hand, enjoy this aspect, as it shifts the focus to some very well-rendered characters.

9.  The Lighting: Lighting of a given scene is almost always important, and it's an aspect that has really taken center stage in recent years. The number of colors and effects available to comics have increased by an order of magnitude at least twice in the past 15 years or so. Who is conveying the lion's share of the lighting in the work under review, the line artist, the colorist, or everyone involved? Some line artists are quick to add significant areas of shadow and shading to their work to convey as much as possible about lighting and form, while others leave these elements almost entirely to the colorists and inkers. Note which artists, and their respective techniques, convey detail in the lighting and shadow.  Is the lighting consistent with a source either inside or outside a given scene, or is it simply placed wherever works to convey mood?  Does the light source remain in place as the 'camera' moves around in the scene? Is shading done (in your opinion) in the correct amounts? Does it vary with the type and nature of the lighting, or is it too uniform? Does it muddy the forms too much with cross-hatching and sketchy contouring? Does the lighting add realism, emotional impact, irony, etc. to the scene?  These are all things to consider.
Note the attention to detail in the lighting: Every panel, every character is rendered with deference to a light source that remains anchored in 3-dimensional space, even as the viewing angle changes from panel to panel. This type of continuity can work, even on a sub-conscious level, to increase the level of immersion.

10.  The Color:  Color can be a bit harder to critique with any sort of objectivity. Many aspects of what color choices can do for a scene are covered in the other entries, above. I also like to think about the mood the colorist is going for, how well the coloring fits the material, whether it looks busy with a myriad of tones or goes instead with a few simple flats, whether colors match the detail level and compliment the line work, especially in high-detail environs, the dynamic range evident on the page, and the attention given to lighting.

Again, this is by no means a complete list. My hope, however, is that it will get the reader thinking along those lines (npi) in a way that enhances his or her enjoyment and appreciation of comics, and encourages a potential reviewer to deliver the detail the audience is looking for.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Jim's Movie Reviews: Godzilla (2014)

Lemme see...there are 29 feature films produced by Toho Studios through 2004, 30 if you count the US Raymond Burr re-hash of the first classic Japanese film, I think...and maybe if you count Godzilla vs. King Kong, with its 2 endings as 2 films, it's 31...then the 1998 abortion...meaning this Godzilla is the 30th (or so) film with the giant lizard headlining. As items of distinction, it features the direction of Gareth Edwards on a script by Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham.  Contributing acting talent for this go-round are Aaron Taylor-Johnson, CJ Adams, Ken Watanabe, and Bryan Cranston.

The original Godzilla, who hit Japanese theaters in 1954, was a work of science fiction horror.  The monster was born out of the collective consciousness of a nation whose identity was forever changed on August 6th, 1945, and it shows:  He is portrayed as the incalculable response of nature to a humanity toying with destructive forces simply too large to be safely handled.  In subsequent features, he is most often portrayed as a (unwitting?) guardian and protector of humanity against other such nemeses, resulting in a more kid-friendly (and definitely less horrifying) set of movies.

This effort proves an attempt to do both:  Depict the horror and fascination of humanity with a creature beyond their ken AND get audiences rooting for the creature as a hero. It's quite the balancing act they've elected, as they could have had an easier time simply trying to re-capture the horror aspect of the original.

The Good:  This movie understands pacing.  We spend some time exploring the human drama, predictably, the exposition peppered with glimpses of the creature and its trail of destruction before the big reveal. Cranston was the stand-out performer here, bringing just enough skill to the job to carry us over.  The human element, after all, plays second-fiddle in a story destined to reveal their efforts as largely ineffectual. The payoff is huge for the investment in teasing:  The first time the creature is exposed in all his horrible glory, the audience I was with erupted into applause, and it wasn't for the last time during the feature. Godzilla in action is a breathtaking statement of the progress of CG art in the 21st century, giving audiences the creature most likely to stir up memories of what many felt as children, watching much older and less technologically adept efforts.  There are more cues to 'real' biology in the design of the monster than in the original rubber suit.  Nevertheless, the artists give us a creature that just drips the kind of 'King Of The Monsters' badassery that gets audiences motivated.  In 3D Imax, the reveal was awe-inspiring, and may be worth the price of admission, for some, all by itself.  The movie quickly ramps up in the third act, giving us periodic, crowd-pleasing...let's call them 'money shots' designed to tickle the fancy of both long-time fans and newcomers alike.  These moments are doled out with just the right amount of flair to maximize the visceral payoff, and although I could see a few critics jumping off due to obvious audience pandering, count me among those who got into the spirit of it.  A few of these moments are in homage to earlier work with the character, and longtime-fans will be happy to see that elements lost in the 1998 attempt are back in place.

The Bad:  The earlier parts of the film are necessary, to be sure, to give us some human connection to the story.  But the engineered nature of these scenes comes through at times, with questions such as, "How can this be all over the news and I just get a tease?" occurring just a little too often.  The end, so far as the human protagonist is concerned, featured some pretty disbelief-inducing plot elements (maybe another character death is called for?).  It's also a little dry at the beginning, where emotionally charged scenes seem to be filmed and edited in a very controlled manner, lending an almost clinical, "True Stories Of The ER" feel to what should be gut-wrenching fear or pain of loss.  The final act eschews almost all the periphery elements of human drama...once the action starts, the film delivers dose after dose of crowd-pleasing scenes of destruction visited by the monster, with very few cuts to the effects of the embattled Godzilla on the human populace.  Massive, crumbling skyscrapers, etc. are set-pieces in the final act, as opposed to places where people live and work.  There are plenty of scenes of fleeing people and reaction shots early on, but when things really start crumbling, it's all about the rock-em'-sock-em' action, for better or worse.  That, and the "he's our friend, really" element is laid on a little too thick.  It's tough to be critical with so many cheer-inducing moments coming out of the third act, but it might have been nicer to give the horror aspect its due a little more often.

The Bottom Line:  Godzilla is a fine effort, and worth seeing (especially in 3D Imax) for those who aren't there to critique it on plot structure and human dramatic elements alone.  Although not a perfect movie, fans of the monster as well as casual fans of visceral summer popcorn entertainment will want to check it out.  8 out of 10, if for nothing other than the "HOLY SHIT"s frequently uttered in theaters everywhere.

Fun fact:  In 1984, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung decided he wanted North Korea to make a Godzilla movie.  In true batshit-crazy fashion, the North Koreans kidnapped South Korean film-maker Shin Sang-Ok, then forced him to make Pulgasari, no doubt the strangest Godzilla rip-off, ever.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Jim's Movie Reviews: Amazing Spider-Man 2

 Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the latest super-hero sequel for 2014 release.  Most of the cast, including Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, Sally Field as Aunt May, and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, have returned from 2012's Amazing Spider-Man, also directed by Marc Webb.  However, we have new writers for this installment in Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who you might recognize from the 2009 Star Trek and its sequel.  Also new to the franchise are Jamie Foxx as the villain Electro, Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborne/The Green Goblin, and Paul Giamatti as The Rhino.  In the film, our hero battles the trio while uncovering the mystery surrounding his parent's death and attempting to keep it together with Gwen.

The worry for many fans with the sequel was that it would repeat the mistake of 2007's Spider-Man 3, where including three antagonists diluted the narrative.  Previews made it clear that this installment would also include three, count them, three super-villains, a move sure to spark controversy.

So, how does it rate?  We've had this year's opening salvo from Marvel Studios in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, another financial success from what has become the de facto model for productions of its ilk.  Does Sony's latest effort deserve a seat at the table, or has the "more is better" bug bitten once again?  Sadly, it's more like the latter...but not exactly.

The Good:  Garfield and Stone, in their respective roles as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy, are perfect.  Much ado has been made of their off-screen romance, but their on-screen familiarity is palpable, especially in the out-of-costume moments between them.  Foxx does a passable job, lending credence to a set of not-so-convincing character motivations.  DeHaan, as Harry, is a welcome addition as well.  Given only scant screen time to establish the Harry/Peter (hur hur) friendship, he manages a natural-feeling connection. Even Giamatti, with the least screen time of all, hams it up perfectly for the material he's given.

As far as over-crowding is concerned, I don't think it was the problem.  At least, not the main problem.  More on that later.  Distilled to its essence, the movie had a decent rhythm: The battle sequences were staggered throughout, and out-of-costume time was peppered in with enough opportunity to keep the plot moving and the character motivators in focus.  On balance, characters are given as much or as little screen time necessary to flesh out the plot.  Rather than share screen time equally, Goblin and Rhino are (correctly) regulated to the back burner for much of the film.  Editing was accomplished pretty well, too, especially in the action sequences. Special effects varied wildly in quality, but on balance, character animations were incredible, even for a movie awash in Sony dollars.  The way Spider-Man moves is a revelation that the Rami movies don't have the monopoly on animating or choreographing one of the toughest characters to get right.

The Bad:  Hmmm...where to start?  Tone.  At times, it's a love story, with Peter and Gwen hashing out a direction for their lives in the midst of some incredible opportunities for Gwen's career as a student.  Then, it's a quick gear-change to an over-the-top Electro origin story in an overtly funny-book style that might have worked well in another movie.  Then, another grinding of gears while Harry enters Peter's life once again, and the two wax nostalgic for off-screen times gone by.  Then, back to the Peter/Gwen thing for more tortured romance.  And so on.  Throw in Peter's parents, some tension between May and Peter, and the whole Goblin arc, and you've got a full plate.

The battle scenes, in particular, make several mistakes with dialogue and action for Spider-Man.  Audiences can expect an over-dose of ham from what should be weighty encounters, with pageantry normally reserved for character appearances at conventions and birthday parties.  I'm all for a s***-talking but kid-friendly Spider-Man, and I understand fully that he needs to connect with his city in a unique way.  But folks, you gotta pepper that stuff in.  At one point, Spidey dons a fire helmet and joins a hook-and-ladder crew to the delight of a cheering crowd, because, you know, they're the real heroes of 9/11 and whatnot.  This, during a scene that called for tension as the hero squared off with his nemesis for the first time.  Instead, Spidey plays to the Times Square crowd like he's guesting on Good Morning America, and it sucks the tension right out.

Electro having the majority of screen time spent on villains, you'd think he'd be a cornerstone of tone for the film, but not so:  Although his origins are tied into the same Oscorp research projects as all the other hero/villain characters in the franchise, his motivations are right out of the Electric Company Super-Villain Origin Story Handbook, and the deep commitment brought by Foxx to the role only drives it home.  Design-wise, he's the star of the movie, with his every vein, nerve and muscle lit from within as his power over electricity asserts itself.  He LOOKS amazing, but his every line of dialogue is right out of Schumaker Batman.   Oh, and while we're at it, his theme in the score is full of 80's-sounding synth and wailing electric guitar (you know, because the villain Electro is all about electricity and...never mind). Although the score knows what it's about in terms of mood, it only tends to drive home how these scenes just aren't crafted like they should relate.  The movie wants you to take Electro seriously as a threat, but it's tough when he's set to a tune better suited for 80's action television, expressing all the depth available to a kid's show parody of the character, and combating a Spider-Man who's tap-dancing for the New York crowd.

Harry Osborne's character arc differs wildly in tone from Electro's.  His connection to Peter is handled in a reunion scene where the actors successfully play to each other's strengths, but there just aren't enough of these. Although the reasons for the Harry/Peter conflict are fairly valid, and their exchanges well-handled individually, the character gets short shrift in terms of screen time.  His arc completes in a forced manner better suited for exploration in a sequel.  It would have been just fine to leave it for next time, but instead, he swoops in (pun intended) at the end as a sort of reverse deus ex machina.

The toughest character arc to watch conclude, hands down, is Gwen Stacy's.  (SPOILERS AHEAD - skip this paragraph if you plan to see it)  For what it's worth, Stone smashes it out of the park for much of the film, giving us a convincing, lovable Stacy that's devoted to Peter, but hangs onto her own priorities.  Nevertheless, the final act is all about tying Stacy to the tracks so Spider-Man can agonize over her death.  The excuses to even have her in the same scenes as Spider-Man, at this point, sound bovine.  Something about "resetting The Grid" and being "the only one who knows how."  Nevertheless, Spider-Man begrudgingly drags her to the scene of her own demise at the hands of the Green Goblin, a character whose own 'arc' only exists to kill Gwen in time for end credits.  Both Goblin and Stacy are cheapened as a result of this ham-fisted rush to conclusion.  I'd have thought there was ample time for some Sony bobble-head to remark, "Hey, that Stone/Garfield thing is killing it on and off screen, why don't we keep her around for a while longer?", but apparently keeping a good thing going and fixing your movie are business practices lost somewhere in the giant movie-making structure. There's also an entirely unnecessary story line involving Spidey's web-shooters that provides, transparently, an opportunity for Gwen to chime in with a fractured science solution right out of the Insane Clown Posse School Of Physics.  Thus begins Gwen's completely contrived ride to vengeance-fueled heaven, all so we can provide the second of the film's three endings, and get her out the way for the third installment. 'Because next time, it's personal!' and all that.
Lurking behind the scenes, only to jump out and crap all over tone and gravitas when you least expect it, is the sound track, where the latest in pre-fab music announces itself like an over-loud 80's K-Tel commercial.  Now available on Sony records and tapes, folks!  I thought we got past musical montages as a movie-making culture (outside of Disney) somewhere around Rocky IV. I was almost certain Sony as an organism would be self-conscious about Peter Parker and musical montages after the fiasco witnessed in Spider-Man 3, but I digress.

The last of the film's transgressions I'll list is the poor CGI set design and opaque story mechanics. "The Grid" is as The Grid does, being an electrical fairy-land tied into one of the loosest excuses for a "threat to the city" in recent memory. It's very mention early in the film suggests that it will host the climactic battle sequence at the end, and it does. As a device, we're told it generates all the power for Manhattan, but it really exists to provide a fantastic setting for Spider-Man to battle in, and later, to endanger Gwen via her expertise in all this 'science'.  It's realized in cartoony, sterile CGI without the detail touches that anchor such things in the name of suspension of disbelief.  If the Times Square scenes come off like a musical or a talk-show appearance, then the CGI-laden Grid is most akin to a video-game cut sequence. One minute, we're on figurative Broadway, the next, we're stuck in Tron.

Conclusion:  This movie would have been relatively easy to fix early in the production.  Move the meat of the Goblin arc to the third installment, revamp some of the action sequences to strike a better balance between comics fun and tension-building, fire the committee that forced those god-awful musical montages into the mix, re-vamp the score (or don't, if you go for a more comical, lighter tone for the movie), and do something better with Gwen. Gwen's arc would have worked better across three installments, but here it's too close to Peter's origin story to keep from cheapening both.

It's a mess of a movie, but often highlights the skill of a cast that manages, at times, to rise above it all.  5 out of 10.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Like" My New Haircut!

Good news, facebook fans!  We can once again post decapitation videos!  Facebook has reversed its policy against users posting video decapitations, instituted last May.  That is, so long as users who post beheadings to facebook include a proper amount of condemnation of the practice of beheading people.  This is not to be confused with condemnation of the practice of posting beheading videos to facebook; let's not get these confused.

facebook says we also need to make sure we're posting our beheadings and such to an age-appropriate audience, responsibly. I assume this means having no under-aged friends?  Is "the internet" an age-appropriate audience?  Judging by some of the things I manage to find, I'd say the internet is a pretty worldly bunch.

You also need to have warnings, and I don't know if spoiler tags count.

What I do know is you can't just post a beheading video and be like, "haha no need to lose your head over it" or make some other lame pun.  Comments should say, "Disgusting!" or "I am appalled!" or something similar so people know you object to actually watching the video murders you post to facebook. Or maybe you object to the murders themselves, and you feel it's your civic duty to speak out about human rights issues in a forum usually reserved for Grumpy Cat and funny pictures of that Dokes guy from Dexter ("Supplies, motherfucker!"...LOL that gets me every time).

My suggestion:  Make sure your follow-up to the video comment has plenty of righteous indignation. Like,  "I'm so disgusted that you would post this, self." or "I really didn't need to see this, me!"  That'll give it the air of seriousness such issues deserve, and let the censors at facebook know you're serious about beheadings.

By the way, I hear you get more hits if you post a picture of the beheading in the original post, then link to the actual video in the "comments" section.

Don't ask me about the "like" button in these instances, I don't know if it counts for or against beheading.  Maybe you clarify by adding a "'Like' if you hate trivialized violence!"

facebook says they figured out the morality of it all during the Boston Marathon bombing, or at least that's what their representative told Gizmodo.  Apparently, there was video of a man whose legs were blown off.  And what type of news service would facebook be if they denied you video of a guy with his legs blown off?  Why, they'd be no news service at all, I reckon.  Without up-to-the-minute coverage of beheading and dismemberment to attract real, useful advertisers, they'd probably have to resort to selling ad space hocking pay-to-play games about farming and gambling.  People would have to look to other sources to form their opinions on graphic depictions of murder and acts of terrorism.

It begs the question:  If not for facebook, how many victims of the Boston bombing would have been left wandering the streets, yearning for some other way to communicate their terror? Twitter would have been my suggestion, but imagine having to express all that shell-shock, arterial spray, abject misery and confusion in 140 characters or just doesn't work out, does it?  Unless your fingers are blown off.  Then, I'd guess 140 characters (or 3, maybe?) would be fine.

We should, as responsible citizens of the blogosphere/cube, always be on the lookout for dismemberment and beheading news to post to facebook, especially with Halloween right around the corner.  Make sure your phone understands gestures if there's any chance you yourself are about to be dismembered: You may only have seconds before you pass out, and you don't want to spend those last moments helplessly hammering your bloody stumps into a touch screen.  Remember, there's an entire internet that needs to know.

It really makes you think:  What if just one sword-wielding nutbag had seen just how many "likes" an anti-beheading video of a beheading was getting? Could that have stayed his hand?  I have a hard time believing a tweet could make the difference, but when you add the embedded video and open-concept facebook floor plan...

Oh, and no nekid boobies during the beheadings.  I mean, c'mon folks: That would be offensive.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Rush

Rush is the latest film from director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon, The Queen).  It tells the (true) story of the intense rivalry between Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), two Formula 1 drivers with extreme personalities whose on- and off-track battles were the stuff of sports legend in the 1970's. In a sport where a significant percentage of drivers is killed, on average, every season, the two figures rise to dominate the track, each fueling the other's desire to win, regardless of risk and personal cost.

The Good:  The personalities on display here are extreme, almost to the point of caricature, but neither the script nor the direction can be faulted for it.  To put it simply, the film does a good job of conveying the truth:  To take up this sport required a certain fearlessness not present in your average person.  To win, one must have been more than a little insane.  The dialogue conveys this, including some word-for-word quotes from interviews and other recorded footage, as if to let the audience know that the personalities on display here are extreme, but aren't "amped up" for cinema.  The subjects needed to be that way, or it wouldn't have been their story being told decades later.  Hunt did show up for interviews with multiple models on his arm. He did speak as if the world was his playground. He did take chances on the track that resulted in both wins and critical injuries. Lauda did walk onto one of the most storied racing teams of his time, blackmailing them for a spot by first building a faster car and then demonstrating that he could beat their best driver in it.  It's one of those situations where narrative truth could have taken a back seat, and personalities could have been toned down to make it seem more real or believable to audiences.  That, and events could have been re-arranged or edited for a more pleasing arc...but it wouldn't have been the truth.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives us some of the best work of his career. The 70's muted Kodachrome color palette was perfect, especially where integrating stock racing footage was necessary to tell the story.  The camera work both on- and off-track was thrilling, and edited to perfection.  I gotta say, this is a contender for "Best Editing", with cuts paced to build intensity during race sequences, and communicating to-the-point personalities outside the track very, very well.

I don't know who to credit with this, but this film needs to win several awards for sound, especially the way the foley work was integrated with the music.  Although there were some missteps and hokey-ness off the track when it came to chosen songs for montages, on the race track was perfection:  Engine noise overwhelms, then gives way to announcers, whose voices in turn echo seemingly right on beat with the music, and it all blends to a seamless whole.  I was thrilled with the race sequences in general, and due in no small part to the craftsmanship evident in what I was hearing.

The bad:  The film may cause feelings of inadequacy, especially among middle-aged males.

Oh, and some of the CG wasn't absolutely perfect.

The verdict:  Probably the best racing film I've ever seen...but that doesn't say much, as, let's face it: Most racing films are stupid.  If you like action and drama, go see it.  9 out of 10.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Kick-Ass 2

Kick-Ass 2, as many of you know, is the sequel to 2010's Kick-Ass, a film adapted from the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic of the same name.  Both Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl) reprise their good-guy/gal lead roles, along with alum Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Red Mist/The Motherfucker) returning as this film's nemesis.

I'm going to keep this one short:  Kick-Ass 2 tries really, really hard to be as subversive and entertaining as the original, but frankly, it's a concept that's played out.  It's a shame, because screenwriter/Director Jeff Wadlow is under the scrutiny of comics fans everywhere for this effort, as well as for being on tap to produce a screenplay for, and possibly direct, a feature X-force film with a tentative 2016 release. Although the shtick of it (a "normal" kid simply decides one day to be a super hero, but he has no powers, no partners, and no comic-book back story/origin to compel him) was perfect for a 2-hour introduction in 2010, it's simply a re-tread on display here, and a bad one at that.

Chief among the film's failures is saying nothing new.  To be honest, I haven't read the second entry in the comic series, so I don't know how much of the blame to lay at Wadlow's feet for it.  There's what passes for a super-villain origin story (although as a character he's re-heated from the last film), and the cast of heroes is slightly expanded (but none of the new are fleshed out), but nothing of note along the lines of change.

Looking back to 2010, the allure of the first film wasn't in the quality of the narrative, to be sure:  It was the fact you'd never really seen anything like it.  It was at once an homage to the genre and a deconstruction of it. These characters live in a mundane world, and with the simple act of stepping into costume and facing the world as super-heroes, you begin to see a sort of magical twist to the rules of reality.  It was as if what they were doing was so extreme, the universe had to back off a bit. Things had to get comic-book-y.  Situations became more and more twisted, personalities became focused and amplified, lines were drawn, costumes were sewn, chaos ensued. The fun of it wasn't limited to watching the characters grow into some sort of archetype, as in most conventional stories of its ilk: It was in watching the world around them change to fit their weirdness.

In 2, however, with the magic spell cast in the original entering its third year, we must look elsewhere for original concepts. Sadly, Wadlow (and perhaps Millar before him?) wallows in the feel and conceits of the original.  The only marked difference is the frequency of toilet humor, really.

I wouldn't have known where to go with the story, either, but then, I'm not asking for a portion of your ticket price. Yeah, I do think Wadlow gets the spirit of it, which does come through on occasion, and I think he does a competent job pulling performances from the actors, and maybe it's just that they're staying true to the original print material. There are a few competent chase and action sequences (as with the first, anything involving Hit-Girl in an action sequence is well done). But for the most part, what was once shiny and new is now...I'll call it boring. Colorful and somewhat random, but boring overall.  Pointless would be another word to use.

At least wait for the rental.  It's a 4 out of 10 stars for being mildly entertaining on occasion.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews - Elysium

Elysium is the second major studio release for director Neil Blomkamp, perhaps best known for his work on District 9, another gritty sci-fi/social commentary piece. District 9 made waves for (among other things) its seamless visual effects, done on a rather shoestring budget but to incredible visual success.  No surprise, then, that Neil's background is entrenched in the world of 3D visual effects on a budget, having supplied them for such television fare as the CW's Smallville.  With this new effort starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, one would believe that any budgetary concerns are in the past.

Although I wouldn't call it a "follow-up", Elysium does tread a lot of the same thematic elements as District 9, although the set of metaphors in this movie tread much more familiar-looking territory.  The two movies both portray a stark separation between the haves/have-not's, the presence of baseless prejudice in the human collective psyche, and a sort of entrenched nationalism on the part of the elite in our societal structure. In District 9, the prejudices being illustrated were a little more in the abstract, as the object of hatred and mis-understanding was an insectoid alien culture.  Elysium, on the other hand, tells a thinly-veiled story of the US/Mexico border, only "Mexico" in this metaphor is the hopelessly polluted and over-populated planet Earth. The United States is represented by Elysium, an orbiting satellite filled with the mansions of the one per-centers looking down on the planet with the same predilections as Ozzy Ozbourne had for fans beneath his hotel balcony way back when.  Lest you think there might be some less specific metaphors in play, especially given Blomkamp's South African nationality, the movie is set in Los Angeles, and almost the entire supporting cast (at least where the "hapless denizens" are concerned) is Latino.

Matt Damon plays an Earth-bound worker (Max) given a terminal prognosis after a lethal exposure to radiation at his incredibly unsafe and exploitative workplace, and his only hope for a cure lies (of course) in the advanced medical facilities aboard the satellite...which, besides being in space, are zealously guarded by its citizens.  Max must enlist the aid of the 22nd century's equivalent of the coyote, and get his ass to Elysium. Oh, and along the way, fight for equality and bring hope to the masses and all that.

So, yeah, it's really preachy.  But does it work as a movie?  Short answer: Mostly, "Yes."

The Good:  Matt Damon plays a convincing every-man in Max, and the desperation and determination of the character's everyday life as a cog in the machine is convincingly focused and magnified through the lens of the more immediate conflict.  Sharlto Copley(The A-team)'s performance was the standout, however, as his intensely violent and determined portrayal of Kruger, revealed as Max's more direct nemesis, was incredibly well done.  Although Jodie Foster's portrayal of Delacourt hasn't enjoyed much by way of critical acclaim, I thought she did a fine job with the ballsy, ruthless defense minister of Elysium, charged with keeping the riff-raff off the station.  She plays a lion among lambs, and I thought it was a wonderful effort on her part.  Overall, the story is competently delivered, and the pacing excellent:  This writer/director knows how to pressurize before he lets the steam out in the more violent scenes, which I think is lost on a lot of the current crop in Hollywood.  Visually, the movie is very well done, as expected, but there were one or two scenes where the effects became overt.  I liked the camera work overall, especially during fight sequences:  It's not steady-cam-centric, as one might come to expect in a Matt Damon action vehicle.  Rather, it is both experimental and elegant in the way the camera, for example, exactly follows the sweeping arc of a thrown punch, all with the fist at center.  It is is focused and on-point without being clinical, and without losing detail in the action.  In certain scenes, the view switches between standard and helmet-mounted cameras, giving the audience a less omniscient perch that serves to anchor to the character's experience of combat.  The sets are excellent, and the textures used (dust, scabs, tears, decay, or the distinct lack thereof) are consistent visual reminders.

The Bad:   I'm all for metaphor in my sci-fi, and I think one of the best aspects of the genre is illustrating the concerns of mankind and how the future addresses them (or ought to address them). However, the best science fiction, in my view, boils the issues down to their essence, and doesn't need such direct and obvious metaphorical links to current events.  Such overt metaphor cheapens whatever message is being conveyed. The parallels drawn in this movie are simplistic caricatures, and it nearly ruins the narrative when you can practically hear the author's voice throughout:  "SEE how the closed borders inevitably result in human trafficking and exploitation of the huddled masses?  SEE how the blind nationalism results in exploitation and the loss of human compassion across borders?  SEE how the use of drone aircraft results in a disconnect between the soldier and the consequences of combat?  Oh, and Universal Health Care!!!" If you've ever thought to yourself, "You know, George Clooney should teach a class in how to portray the ethics of US foreign policy in a blockbuster movie, I'd sign up right away!", then this is the movie for you. Also, much of the movie's plot depends upon minutiae that doesn't stand up to examination, like the security systems surrounding the government of a space colony being remarkably easy to subvert, and machines capable of DNA coding that can re-build a person atom by atom, but are fooled into dispensing care to non-citizens by a forged brand on the skin.  These little things are beside the point, but then, the enjoyable aspects of the movie are ALL beside the point: Everything slaved to "the point" ends up being about as thought-provoking as the PSA at the end of every GI Joe cartoon.  If you disregard the "message" of the film, you'll end up looking elsewhere for stuff to think about, and it's an easy leap to start dissecting the film for plot holes (which invariably appear).


The Conclusion:  This is a good sci-fi action film, having a skilled director that knows how to construct good drama, and its intentions are in the spirit of the best science fiction. However, it falters where the specific and unabashed metaphor for current US politics is concerned, being altogether transparent and detracting from the film's supposedly future setting.

The Rating:  A solid 8 on a 10 scale as a sci-fi action/drama, but only rates a 3 in terms of social commentary.  Too transparent, too simplistic, too "now" to provoke anything in terms of conversation on the issues at hand.